I am all in favour of long term strategies to get to the root of a social problem. On the other hand, when I see an immediate and pressing need, it seems to me that I have to respond to what is in front of me albeit not a long term or satisfactory response. This pragmatic streak has always caused me to have theoretic difficulties with many of my more idealistic reforming friends who see me as shoring up a tired and unworkable system with this approach. Rationally, I know they are right but when an individual need presses itself upon you, are you supposed to turn away because it does not fit with long term strategies? I am prepared to live with my inconsistencies!
Such a difficulty is presented with homelessness. Focus Ireland say we have a broken housing system. Trying to get your head around that is very difficult especially when the complexities which give rise to the problem are so many and so intricate. As the crisis seems to just get worse and worse, I get overcome with the enormity of it and a feeling of hopelessness. I think a lot of people feel like this about national and international crises and we assuage our feelings of helplessness by throwing some money at the problem, particularly, around Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all adverse to helping people with a donation for a coffee or sandwich though I have heard people say “Oh they will just spend it on drink”. So judgemental as if everyone homeless including the 3194 children were all drunks and drug addicts. However, we cannot just sit on our hands wondering what we might do and then doing nothing really because it is all too big. We cannot allow more people to die on the streets while our government sits idly by doing what seems to be way too little way too slowly and making inhumane comments like our problem is small compared to other countries. When have we not seen ourselves as special? We Irish might be idiotic in our self-regard but we have never seen ourselves as the same as everyone else. We see ourselves as the most welcoming, the most-friendly, the best educated young population, the best place to raise children, the funniest, the most intelligent, the most literary, the most charitable and I could go on and on. It must be because Leo Vradkar does not understand this about us that he made such an insensitive comment! Yesterday, a Cork woman died on our streets who was 40 years old. She was homeless and I do not know her story. I do know that 40 is too young to die and the circumstances of her death might have been avoidable as they might have been for all the other people who have died on our streets in the last few years. Since I heard this I am trying to find an angle for me to establish a foothold within this problem so that I can have a perspective on it which is not just about throwing money at the odd homeless person who crosses my path.
I work in the area of marital and relationship breakdown. A large number of organisations working with homelessness, identify homelessness and family or relationship breakdown as connecting factors. Few enough identify divorce/separation or breakdown as the only cause but as one of the contributing causes leading to homelessness. Post marital or relationship breakdown many people find themselves on the private rental market. In Cork as in most other areas of the country the rental market is rapidly growing out of people’s financial reach and these are people who are working, let alone those who find themselves newly poor or those on welfare. We can rant about greed and the lack of regulation of the private rental sector and we would probably be right on both counts but that does not solve the immediate difficulty for the person suddenly homeless. Right now, it is true that the biggest increase in the homeless statistics are families as opposed to single adults with a rising number of children. Of those families the majority are single parent led and of those the majority are led by women. How did those women get into this situation? Many by virtue of domestic violence. At this time the powers that be do not count the women who are in refuges as homeless which has resulted in such women being discriminated against when it comes to housing. Abuse victims can find it hard to be put on the housing list and they can also have a difficulty showing they are homeless as they are sometimes joint owners of a home or renters of property. That is something that we can rectify easily. Family Lawyers can lobby to change this and to ensure that all national agencies involved with families compile statistics on domestic violence which will help us form realistic policies. Traveller and migrant women face particular difficulties that place them in risk situations that can easily be identified and catered for once recognised as present.
There is little doubt that increased investment in social housing is vital but that takes time. We also need provision of short term accommodation spaces to include provision for women only particularly women who have been subjected to domestic violence and rape. We need a referendum which would put the right to housing in the Constitution thereby making sure that Governments cannot ignore this issue despite their term of office being only 4 years.
Research in Canada shows that post separation/divorce/breakdown 40% of women are in a worse economic situation than previously and are three times more likely to live in poverty. Women leaving marriages often face challenges that are most common to them as women such as a broken career pattern, children living with them and their needs, care of elderly, unequal labour market particularly in the lower paid sector, refusal of landlords in Ireland to accept social welfare rental supplement and so on. In addition, the trauma caused by relationship breakdown can bring on a mental crisis.
Settlements in marital breakdown or relationship breakdown do not have to virtually pro forma. We can tailor them to your needs. It is important that people understand that the family home does not have to be sold post separation or divorce. There is no legal requirement to do so. It is also not true that the wife gets to stay in the family home and the man must inevitably leave. Courts will look at individual circumstances and needs which is why there are no hard and fast rules in the legislation governing these areas but Judges do have to be guided by case law (court hearings in higher courts) and what the family law statutes indicate the should take into account. It is possible, however, to reach settlement agreements and happily there ae now a range of ways to achieve that. Collaboration is one of them and it combines lawyers who have mediation skills, collaborative skills per se and lawyer skills in one package working in a team. Mediation is another method which is a very adaptable style of working and can be reconfigured to suit individual family needs. We also offer Managed Negotiation, lawyer assisted mediation and settlement talks as ways of coming to solutions without going to court. A calm approach which takes advice at an early stage is key and keeps legal costs down. The Legal Aid Board has many trained mediators and collaborators and people availing of their services should ask about them. Private lawyers also offer this service but clearly at a cost, however, that cost is a lot less than going to court and the emotional cost is considerably less.